When I was 8 years old, my parents sent my sister and me to stay with family for several weeks while they traveled to Ust-Labinsk, a small Russian town a few hours east of the Black Sea, to adopt my younger sister. She was then a few months shy of her first birthday and was among many children living in a derelict orphanage.
My parents returned a year later to the nearby city of Krasnodar to adopt my younger brother, who was just under a year old.
At the time, I could not comprehend why, instead of just having more children themselves, my parents would trek around the world. Now it makes perfect sense.
They wanted more kids, and there were plenty of children already born that needed a family. Why not find one of them?
This was on my mind last week, when Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that Russia will no longer allow adoption of its children to American families.
A bleak system
Russias orphanage system then, and to a somewhat lesser extent now, is a hodgepodge of underfunded facilities. Children are kicked out of orphanages around 16 and left to lead whatever lives they can scrape together with poor education and support.
My sister likely would have faced an especially bleak future in Ust-Labinsk. She was born with clubbed feet, and corrective surgery cost more than most Russian families earn in a year.
With good insurance and a capable medical system in the United States, the bones in her feet were taken apart, the muscles pulled from them and everything rearranged to look and function like normal feet. Now you would never know there was a problem.
But if Russia had banned adoption by Americans before my sister came to live with us, she likely would have remained physically disabled, and she and my brother could have been put on the street this year.
Stories similar to my familysare the rule, not the exception, when examining the tens of thousands of Russians adopted by Americans during the past two decades.
But what helped the ban pass was the just-do-something response caused by a focus on extreme cases of abuse and neglect by adoptive families. The law is named in memory of a Russian child, adopted by U.S. parents, who died after being left in a truck in the heat. That case is one of roughly 20 oft-cited instances of Russian adoptees who died or suffered abuse in the care of American parents.
Kids need families
Yes, there has been a tumultuous relationship between the United States and Russia, and extreme cases of abuse are tragic. But what about the real problems underpinning the debate? What happens to the 50-plus children who already had met adoptive families and were ready to go to a home in the United States? And how will Russian orphanages care for a burgeoning number of children in a system already stretched thin?
Olga Spachil of Krasnodar, who helped arrange the adoption of my brother and sister, said the ban leaves countless kids without answers to those questions.
A lot has been done in Russia recently to help the orphans, but if some kids are still at institutions and there are families who want them, of course they should be united as soon as possible, she said.
Kris Faasse of Bethany Christian Services, which helped my parents, said she and others will push back against the ban without attacking Russians. Its always a countrys right to make decisions about its children, she said. But well continue to engage in dialogue to get across a simple point: kids need families. Kids need to grow up in families. We need to talk on that personal level.
Austin Baird is serving a one-year fellowship as a reporter at The N&O.
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